Media gags: old tactics, new faces

The PECA Ordinance is an addition to the laws to gag the Press

Media gags: old tactics, new faces


rom the 1857 Gagging Act and the 1910 Press Act of India, many laws have been made to silence journalists and dissenters. The mindset favouring authoritarian rule has persisted even under nominally democratic governments. Press is invariably the first and foremost target. In this regard, Prime Minister Imran Khan has not distinguished himself from his many predecessors.

The recently promulgated ordinance to amend the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, is an addition to the laws meant to gag the Press. It is draconian in that like colonial era laws it allows authorities to arrest any person without a warrant. The person will also not be able to get bail till the final decision of the case.

It’s an irony that whereas the country’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, fought for the freedom of the Press, taking to the street along with his wife to protest against censorship and representing journalists in courts, his successors have moved in a different direction altogether.

Jinnah also established the independent institution of the Editor in his newspaper, the daily DAWN. Had that practice been adopted by others too, Pakistan’s ethical and professional media history would have been quite different.

Let me quote from Zameer Niazi’s book The Press in Chains:

“In 1946, the Muslim League ministry in the North West Frontier Province failed to get the vote of confidence. In consequence, Sardar Aurangzeb’s cabinet had to go. A Lahore English fortnightly while analysing the situation, mercilessly assailed the outgoing League ministry. At the insistence of the Quaid-i-Azam it was reproduced in DAWN, to the surprise and dismay of many. Did he substantially agree with the thesis in the article? Why did he want to publicise the fact that the League ministry in the Frontier Province could not continue because it did not deserve to continue?... The moral is obvious. The Quaid-i-Azam did not want to conceal anything from his people. He could not deceive his own nation.”

Pakistan has had a history of draconian laws since Independence, when the Press Act of India was replaced with the Pakistan Security Act and the first attack against the Press was launched. More laws to curb the media rather than giving it freedom followed. After the death of Jinnah, his successors buried his vision of a free Press.

From print to electronic, and now digital, media, the Press has been subject to draconian laws that allow highly politicised and corrupt law enforcement agencies to abuse their powers under these laws to please the rulers.

There are over 50 laws currently to control the media and only two (one still incomplete) to offer some protection to journalists and media workers. These are the Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) Act 1973 and the recently adopted Journalist Protection Bill.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 has already been used against dissenting social media and rights activists and bloggers. With the PECA Ordinance 2022, there are serious concerns that it will not only be used to target government’s opponents but also make anybody with a mobile phone vulnerable.

According to a former senior FIA officer, the PECA originally aimed at curbing offences like blackmailing of women and children. Soon, however, it was being used to target opponents of the government.

“First, we need to establish the FIA’s credibility so that a potential complainant has confidence in them. Next, there is a need for proper training; and finally, non-interference from the Executive. Without that, laws like the PECA could threaten one’s privacy in the name of law enforcement. There have been cases of abuse after someone surrendered his or her mobile phone to an investigating officer,” the former official says.

Media gags: old tactics, new faces

The PM’s blatant attack on the media in his address to the nation was not surprising. During the 2014 dharna, too, his supporters had attacked journalists, stoned DSNG vans and ransacked GEO’s offices in Islamabad.

Prime Minister Imran Khan is right when he says that the PECA 2016 was enacted by the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) government. It was the brain child of then IT minister Anusha Rahman, who had been very critical of the media. What the premier did not mention in his recently televised address was his own position at the time. He had demanded that the law be repealed. It appears that he has taken a U-turn on the issue.

It is apprehended that like the PECA 2016 was has been used against political opponents and rights activists, particularly since 2018, the recently promulgated PECA Ordinance 2022 will be misused against the PTI by its successors in government. Instances of similar actions against “anti-government” journalists are on record under the Press and Publications Ordinance 1960 and the Amended Ordinance 1963, from Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Gen Zia ul Haq.

Every political leader when in opposition has assured complete freedom of the Press, promised to make PTV and Radio Pakistan autonomous bodies and supported the abolition of the Ministry of Information. Once in power, everyone has used the same tools against their opponents and justified keeping these institutions under government control.

When Prime Minister Imran Khan came into power, his government, through the Minister of Information Fawad Chaudhry, proposed the establishment of a Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) aimed at controlling the media. That attempt failed and Chaudhry was replaced, first by Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan and later by Shibli Faraz. Now he is back and has become the most vocal proponent of the PECA Ordinance.

In 2016, a draft bill was prepared to amend the Press, Newspapers, News Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance, 2002. It was aimed at controlling the media. When the then information minister Marriyum Aurangzeb learnt about it the move was stopped and the officers behind were sacked.

The prime minister’s attack on the media in his address to the nation was not surprising. During the 2014 dharna, some of his supporters had attacked journalists, stoned DSNG vans and ransacked the GEO offices in Islamabad.

Nearly 50 journalists have been killed in the country over the 13 years of uninterrupted democratic rule. Rights activists and bloggers, particularly those critical of the government policies, too have been among the prime targets of laws aimed to silence dissent.

Attacks on two independent media houses, the Dawn group and the Jang/ Geo group, have changed the course of Pakistani media. Tremendous pressure was brought to bear following the infamous Dawn Leaks and the murderous attack on TV anchor and columnist, Hamid Mir.

Given that most of the media revenues in Pakistan accrue from advertisements and not directly from circulation or viewership, the independence of the media is vulnerable in any case. The denial of ads has forced these two media houses to apply significant job and salary cuts.

I was the general secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) in 2004-2005 when for the PEMRA Ordinance, 2002, came before the parliament. In my presentation before the National Assembly’s standing committee on information, I warned of the misuse of many clauses of the law against the media. All that we had feared came about in 2007. Later, both Gen Pervez Musharraf and the civilian governments used the law against various media groups. In 2008, then information minister Sherry Rehman withdrew the amendments to the law made during the Emergency, one of which prohibited criticism of the president.

Prior to the PECA Ordinance, the current government had pressed the stakeholders to accept the Pakistan Media Development Authority without sharing a draft of the intended legislation. Instead, a draft was ‘leaked’ from the Ministry of Information and ‘talking points’ were shared.

In August, the government and media bodies agreed to hold negotiations on how to prevent circulation of fake news. The first meeting between the Joint Action Committee of the media and the government was held in October. It was decided that the media bodies will submit their proposals, including a definition of fake news. In November, the committee submitted its recommendations and defined fake news, citing examples around the world. Sources close to the government say that Minister of State on Information Farrukh Habib too agreed to definition. It was further agreed that a highly reputed UK law firm would be hired to help the government and the media committee.

However, the government later came out with the PECA Ordinance throwing the negotiations off track. At first, the information minister distanced himself from it, saying that the draft came from the IT Ministry. Now, he is defending it.

Perhaps the minister wanted something like the PMDA with a different face. Now that a deadlock has resulted from government action, it is up to the prime minister and his media advisors to decide how they want to be remembered in history – as those who repealed the draconian laws that were used to gag and intimidate the media or otherwise?

We are far away today from Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan. In 1936, Jinnah raised his voice against the Indian Press (Emergency) Act of 1931, when newspapers ceased publication. The trigger then was the reproduction of a speech by Pandit KK Malaviya in a newspaper.

Jinnah said, “The freedom of speech gives me the right to publish it and I am not punishable … We have complete freedom to make any speech that we like, express any opinion we like, and we are not liable to any action outside by any court, civil or criminal … it is the privilege of the newspaper to have the proceedings published and so long as they are true, fair and faithful, it is not liable to action.”

We have been fighting for the freedom of the Press for many decades. Our struggle against all such media gags will continue.

The writer is a columnist and an analyst at GEO, The News and Jang. He tweets at @MazharAbbasGEO

Media gags: old tactics, new faces